Front Page Titles (by Subject) A DISSERTATION ON THE Nature, Authority, and Uses of the Office of a FINANCIER-GENERAL, OR Superintendant of the Finances. [ First published in Philadelphia, Jan. 24, 1781.] - Political Essays on the Nature and Operation of Money, Public Finances and Other Subjects
Return to Title Page for Political Essays on the Nature and Operation of Money, Public Finances and Other Subjects
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
A DISSERTATION ON THE Nature, Authority, and Uses of the Office of a FINANCIER-GENERAL, OR Superintendant of the Finances. [ First published in Philadelphia, Jan. 24, 1781.] - Pelatiah Webster, Political Essays on the Nature and Operation of Money, Public Finances and Other Subjects 
Political Essays on the Nature and Operation of Money, Public Finances and Other Subjects, published during the American War, and continued up to the present Year, 1791 (Philadelphia: Joseph Crukshank, 1791).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
A DISSERTATION ON THE Nature, Authority, and Uses of the Office of a FINANCIER-GENERAL, OR Superintendantof theFinances.
AS the appointment of a Financier-General, or Superintendant of the finances or public revenues, has been some time in contemplation, it may not be unacceptable to the public to see a dissertation on the nature of that high office, and the duties, powers, and privileges annexed to it, with some notes on its importance, dignity, and uses.
This is a new subject in America;* it may therefore be expected that the first essays on it will be imperfect. Nothing but experience in so immense a subject can give a full and comprehensive knowledge of all its parts, and of the duties, powers, and privileges necessary to the proper management and due execution of it. I have thought much on the subject, and find it greatly exceeds my comprehension. I can only give the public such thoughts as occur to me, which, without further preface or apology, I shall do with freedom, and hope they may be received with candor.
The duty of a Financier-General, I humbly conceive, is,
I. To inspect and take account of the whole finances or public revenues of the States, and the whole funds or stock out of which they are to grow; i. e. every sort of public property, all sources of all kinds out of which public monies are to be derived to supply the public treasury, and superintend all these, i. e. take due care that they are well kept, free from waste, destruction, and embezzlement, and that they be managed and improved to the best advantage.
II. To inspect and point out, arrange and put into action, the ways and means by which the necessary supplies of the public treasury may be derived from all these sources or funds, that the same be done with most ease to the subject, and safety to the States, with all that effect, decision, and expedition necessary to all public movements, and at the least expense which can be adequate to these great ends; i. e. to make estimates of the yearly expenditures, and point out the ways and means of supplies, and to arrange both in so clear and particular a manner for the inspection of Congress, that they may have at once a view of the whole and all the parts, to the end that, having such a state of all the facts and materials before them, they may be able to form the most wise and proper resolutions thereon, which the safety and well-being of the States require.
It is further necessary that this be done in such season, as to give sufficient time for the deliberations of Congress, and carrying their resolutions into effect, in the most natural and easy way, that thereby the dangers, mischiefs, and confusion of precipitation, hurry, and extreme urgency of these very weighty matters, may be avoided.
III. To inspect and control all officers who have the keeping, disposal, or management of each and all of said funds, to the end they may be properly directed, encouraged, checked, and supported in the discharge of their several offices, in such manner that their management, accounts, and payments may be completed with least delay and most advantage to the States.
IV. To call on the several States for such quotas as may be assessed by Congress, and to keep them advised of every thing that the demands of Congress and the public exigencies may require of them, respecting the revenue.
V. To inspect all the expenditures of the States, of every kind, to the end they may be made with the best economy, and to the utmost benefit of the public.
VI. To inspect and control all officers, concerned in the payment or expenditure of the public monies or revenues, and to demand a return of all such expenditures from such officers, with the balance of all their accounts, that so he may be enabled to keep an exact balance of all the public revenues and expenditures, ready for the inspection or information of Congress, whenever they shall call for the same.
VII. To inspect all debts due to and from the States, all bills of credit, and all treaties and contracts relating to the revenue or public monies, to the end there may be collection and payment made, with that punctuality and decision necessary to the support of the public faith, that so the States may receive no detriment from any failure or delay in this delicate and important particular.
VIII. To keep an account of the whole revenue, and all its parts, and of the whole expenditures, and all their parts, in so clear and digested a manner, as to be able, on reasonable notice, to report to Congress the state and amount of each, with the deficiency or surplusage of the revenue for purposes of government.
IX. To procure such certain documents of the whole funds or resources of the public revenue, and all their parts, and make himself so acquainted with the same, as to be able to point out the best ways and means of increasing the revenue, for any purposes of public safety and advantage, when Congress shall require such service from him.
X. To make discovery and report to Congress of any department of the expenditures, which are more expensive than necessary, and of any that are starved thro’ want of such supplies and allowances as are necessary.
XI. To be in all things subject to the control of Congress, and to be accountable to them only.
This view of the extensive duty of a Financier clearly discovers the nature, importance, and uses of his office. The great design of it is, to range the several sources of the public revenue in order, that the whole system of it may be clearly understood, that any part that is wanted may be at hand, that the whole may be raised with the least burden possible to the people, and be made to go as far, and produce as much benefit, as possible.
The invention of ways and means of improving the revenue, or raising public money, is not a more necessary part of the business of finance, than economy and prudence in the expenditures. Perhaps the latter is the more important and difficult of the two. For I conceive there may be found ten men who know how to get money, to one who knows how to keep it, or pay it away with proper economy and prudence; and I apprehend that our present distresses, and the exhausted state of our revenues, arise more from defects in the last of these, than the first. The natural operation of this office discovers these errors, and leads to a remedy. For,
1. It is manifest that the man, whose duty it is to find all the money which is to pay every department, will be most likely to study and introduce economy in the expenditures, and to spy out and check any excessive expense or waste.
2. It is further very natural to suppose, that when the Congress are informed with certainty of the extent of the revenue, they will calculate their expenditures within the limits of it; so that this office becomes a restraint even on Congress itself, if we can suppose them capable of any want of due consideration or prudence in this respect: And,
3. Every officer of expenditure will find himself under some check also, when he reflects that he must bear the penetrating eye of the man who finds all the money which he spends or pays out of his office. Further,
The powers, rights, and privileges of this great office are also obvious from the above survey of its nature and uses.
1. It appears that this office is of great extent and importance, and therefore ought to receive from every department of the States all such suitable helps, countenance, and support, as are necessary to procure and preserve its uses, proper operation, authority, and dignity.
2. That this officer ought to be kept constantly advised by Congress, of all such resolutions of that body as respect the public revenues and expenditures.
3. That he should have right to demand all accounts, and inspection of all books, which respect the public revenues and expenditures. And,
4. That he should be vested, by commission from Congress, with all the authority necessary to the full and perfect discharge of all the duties of his office, and be indulged with all the privileges necessary to the success, use, and dignity of it.
As this ground is all new and untrodden, it may be dangerous to define too particularly the duties, rights, authority, and privileges of this office. A little practice on the great and general principles on which it is founded will gradually open the particulars further necessary, which may be added by future provisions, if such shall be found expedient.
As I am ignorant of the present arrangement of the revenues and expenditures, I cannot tell how far any of the above particulars may fall within the departments already established, and have here only to add, that as far as any of them are provided for, a return only will be necessary from the subordinate officers, of such particulars as may be requisite to complete the accounts, and furnish the materials of this great office.
From which it appears, that this office does not interfere with any other offices of the revenue or expenditures; such as the office of Treasurer or Treasury Board, Auditor of Accounts, &c. &c. This office begins where they end. This office takes the state and balance of the accounts of all the other officers, as they make up and finish them. This office arranges and brings them all into one view, and states in order every branch both of revenue and expenditure, from the aggregate of which the amount of the whole is made.
This brings into distinct and plain view, the whole stock, cash, credits, and incomes of the revenue of every kind, and also all the debts and expenses which are to be provided for and paid.
With these documents, a man endowed with the proper skill, great comprehension of mind, and natural aptitude to the subject, necessary for this great work, will be able to see the excesses and deficiencies of each branch of revenue and expenditure, and to judge in what manner every error may be corrected and reformed; and what makes this reformation easier is, that the error may be soon discovered, and the particular branch or place in which it lies be pointed out, and the natural and proper means of amendment put into direct and speedy operation, which nips the evil in the bud, before it has time to grow into such fatal magnitude, as not only to corrupt the department in which it lies, but also to spread into other contiguous departments, so as to become ruinous in its continuance, and very difficult in the cure.
Further, this great officer, with such a comprehensive view of the whole stock and resources of the revenue, will be furnished with the best advantages to consider the nature and strength of each of them, and to form such arrangements and put them all into such operation and effect, as to produce the greatest supply with the least burden to the people.
This is of mighty importance. This may be done, and often is, in such an injudicious and unnatural way, as to double the burden of the people, without increasing the supplies; and the worst way that perhaps ever was or could be thought of, is that which has been adopted for five years past, viz. paying the expenditures by the depreciation of the currency. This has done it indeed in some measure, but with such an inundation of calamities as are enough to draw tears.
A good Financier is much the rarest character to be found of any in the great departments of state. France has had but three in 400 years, viz. the Duke of Sully, under Henry IV. Colbert, under Louis XIV. and Mr. Neckar. England has not had one since Queen Elizabeth’s time: perhaps Lord North is equal to any that have gone before him, but his whole talents at finance are all exhausted in running his nation in debt, and contriving ways and means of paying the interest by the endless oppression of his people.
The great Postlethwait indeed, about thirty years ago, had the true genius of financiering, as appears by his various treatises on that subject; but the stupid ministry of his time had so little conception of the matter, that they did not know a Financier when they saw one, or, like the cock in the fable, did not know the value of the jewel which shined in their sight.
We rarely read in history of any wars, or other movements of expense, undertaken by any nation, but we find their finances soon fail, and then the movements (be they ever so important) must be discontinued, or starved into very trivial effect. This generally happens because they have not an able financier, who can calculate and balance the expenses and resources, and keep the latter in such effectual operation, as will be sufficient for the exigencies of the former. This calamity does not always arise from the expenses being greater than the resources; it more commonly takes its origin from some or all of the following capital errors of finance:
1. In the assessment and collection; as when the tax is not laid in season, or is so laid that it does not operate by way of equality on every part of the community; when the tax is consumed in the collection of taxes; by an over number of officers or other needless expense; by the embezzlement of the officers; &c. &c. Of this kind of error are, all free quarters of troops, all forcible impressing of supplies, or services for the public, &c. &c. because these bring the public burden in an over proportion on a few, by which not only the few are oppressed, but the whole community suffers. Injustice always carries damage with it; those who do not suffer, see they are liable to like injury, and of course are in fear—their peace and ease are not secure.
2. By waste or want of economy in the expenditure; as where the money is paid for purposes diverse from those for which it was granted, and appropriated; when the public movements are so ill contrived and managed, as to cost more money than is necessary; when useless projects are undertaken; when the public property is suffered to waste, decay, or perish for want of due care and proper disposal of it; want of discernment and discretion to pay the most pressing demands first, and let those debts lie unpaid, that can remain with the least damage, whenever it so happens that there is not money on hand enough to satisfy all the demands. A great deal depends on this kind of discretion, when the demands may happen to exceed the supplies, &c. &c.
3. By suffering the public credit to decay; this is an amazing waste of the public wealth; for when a man’s credit runs low, he must be in difficulty to find people that will trust him at all, cannot expect a good choice, or to be well served, and after all, over and above the interest and other douceurs, he must expect to pay heavily for the risk of trusting him. When a prodigal’s estate comes to be devoured by premiums, interest, and discount, when he begins to receive 50l. or 80l. and give security for 100l. his fortune must grow desperate soon. It is the same case with the public; and in this way no nation on earth can hold it out long. Every degree of this misery brings an increase with it, and if it cannot be stopped, a bankruptcy must ensue.
I mention these particulars only to show, that a Financier is the most natural and sure guard against these mischiefs, as well as the most able and likely person to remedy them. The man who finds all the money that is to be expended, is the most likely man on earth to spy out any errors in the revenue or expenditures, and to keep the public faith sacred and inviolate; as his own personal happiness, fortune, and character, will be immediately affected by these errors; and as he is supposed to be a man of the best abilities and strong attention to business, and that he devotes his whole time and powers to this branch or department only, he must be presumed to understand it the best, to inspect every part of it with the most pervading eye, to spy out the errors soonest, and to have the best ability and disposition to apply the most natural, speedy, and effectual remedy. That which is every body’s business is commonly nobody’s.
In all aggregate bodies, where many men make up a board, they can throw off the blame of any mismanagement from one to another, &c. which cannot be the case when the trust is committed to a single person. Besides, from the nature and duty, the design and uses of this office, it appears most plain and evident, that it must be the work ofone mind.
Its object is so vast and complex, and the action consists in comparing, fitting, and balancing so many different things to and with each other, that it cannot be otherwise done than by the attention of a single mind. In a state of quietude, when small expenditures are necessary, little experience, skill, or economy may do; but when the expenditures grow vast, and require a strong draft on every resource of the revenue, then skill, attention, order, and method become essentially necessary. A small shed may be built without skilful workmen, but in a building which requires a thousand pieces of timber to be framed together, a head workman, of skill and attention, becomes absolutely necessary to regulate and control the whole work; in the smallest frames indeed, such a workman is very desirable and useful, tho’ not so essentially and absolutely necessary.
It follows then, that every community, every nation, every state, ought to have a Financier to control the revenues and expenditures, and preserve the public faith inviolate. We have tried it on five years without one, I am fully of opinion that we cannot be worsted the five next years with one; and therefore, as the quacks say of their nostrums, it will do no hurt, there is a probability of success, the expense is small, it is at least worth a trial.
As this is the first essay of the kind that has appeared here, it cannot reasonably be supposed that it should be perfect; and I hope those who find faults in this, will mend them in more perfect exhibitions of their own, that our country may reap all advantage from the best and most correct wisdom of all its inhabitants.
[* ] The office of Superintendant of finance was first created by resolution of Congress, Feb. 7, 1781; and on the 20th of the same month, Robert Morris, esq. was appointed by vote of Congress to execute the office under the name of Superintendant of finance, tho’ he was commonly called the financier-general, or simply the financier.
He continued in the office till Nov. 1, 1784, when he resigned, and no successor has been since appointed under that name; (the business of the treasury was put into commission afterwards, and continued so till the dissolution of the old Congress) but I take it that the same office is revived and continued by the present Congress under a new name, viz. that of Secretary of the treasury; which office is at present held by Alexander Hamilton, esq. and the appointment of this officer lies (among others) in the President of the United States, with the approbation of the Senate.